Four teams remain in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is weird because four years ago today the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Nashville Predators in Game 6 and won the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row. And yet here we are, perhaps another three or four weeks from the completion of the playoffs.
Things devolved for the Penguins pretty quickly after that 2017 Cup Final as general manager Jim Rutherford went off the deep end in search of TOUGHNESS and GRIT, a conquest that ultimately came up fruitless and with Rutherford trading away a bunch of players and assets which probably wouldn’t have made the last three seasons of Penguins teams any worse than they already were.
One of the biggest unforced errors, and really the beginning of Rutherford’s downturn as Penguins GM was trading away Marc-Andre Fleury. Just one week after winning the Cup and only days after the big parade through and around downtown Pittsburgh, Rutherford had to make the fateful decision of whether to protect Fleury or Matt Murray from the impending expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury, then 32.5 years old, still had two years remaining on his contract at $5.75M/year, but with the emergence of Murray, who had turned in a great rookie year the year prior and backstopped the Penguins to the 2016 Stanley Cup, and with Tristan Jarry looming in the background in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Fleury was looking like an expensive paperweight more than a surefire starter. Fleury’s limited no-movement/no-trade clause meant that Rutherford would be forced to protect Fleury and leave the younger, less expensive, and presumably better long-term investment of Murray exposed to be selected. It did not help things for Fleury’s case that he turned in one of his worst years in 2016-17, but it was an open secret that Rutherford was looking for a way to move on from the Penguins’ longtime starter.
To Fleury’s enormous credit, he decided to get out of the way and waive his no-movement clause so he could be exposed in the expansion draft. But there was still no guarantee from Vegas that they would draft Fleury and not someone like Bryan Rust (who in retrospect was the only player other than Fleury worth protecting), so Rutherford decided that he had to sweeten the deal. By sending the Golden Knights the Penguins’ second-round pick in the 2017 entry draft, so began Rutherford’s stretch of disastrous overpayments and mismanagement of assets. Vegas did draft Fleury, and as much as his stock has skyrocketed in his renaissance as a Golden Knight, the Penguins’ goaltending situation has been nightmarish. Murray flamed out in spectacular fashion, and he was traded to Ottawa for Jonathan Gruden[who?] and (LOL) the Senators’ second-round pick in 2020…which Rutherford used to draft another goalie, Joel Blomqvist. Meanwhile, this past season in his first year as starter, Jarry proved not much more reliable than Murray or Fleury, and he ended up splitting time with Casey DeSmith, who was much more reliable but whose injury at the end of the season put the Penguins behind the eight-ball come the playoffs.
As for Fleury, he had an incredible season for Vegas this year, perhaps the best of his entire career, and is one of the Vezina finalists for the first time in his career. He and the Golden Knights battled the Colorado Avalanche for first in the West Division, just barely missing the honor, but they secured their Stanley Cup Semifinals berth by defeating their newly-minted rivals in six games. Now, by virtue of this season’s unique alignment and playoff structure, they’ll face off against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens for the chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. I won’t bother bringing up Fleury’s history against the Canadiens because I don’t think it matters much in this context. What does matter is that Fleury has been overshadowed over the years in the discussion of best Canadian goaltenders by Price, and this will be a fascinating opportunity for Fleury to perhaps change that discussion. For Montreal, they’ve relished in being the underdogs all postseason by dismissing the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets, but neither of those teams are quite as deep as Vegas. I’m thinking Vegas in six.
In the other semifinals pairing are two teams I really don’t want to see win the Cup in a rematch of their semifinals series from last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders. Tampa Bay battled through two very tough opponents in the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes to get back to the final four in their hopes of being the first repeat Cup champions since Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, but would they have gotten this far without Nikita Kucherov? The Bolts’ leading scorer in these and last year’s playoffs spent the entire season on long-term injured reserve, and the Lightning were able to use the very large cap exemption to help bolster their roster in Kucherov’s absence. As expected, Kucherov was completely healthy and practicing well before the playoffs began, but Tampa didn’t bother to take him off of LTIR until after the regular season ended. Dirty pool in my book, but it appears that there isn’t much of an appetite amongst the Board of Governors to close this loophole.
And then you have the Islanders. My rule for the playoffs is as always: if the team I’m rooting for gets beaten, the team that beat them is my sworn enemy. So while the Islanders did us all a solid by eliminating the Boston Bruins from the playoffs, they are nevertheless no more preferable than the Bruins. But they also feel like a team that is strangely favored by the Hockey Gods, after defending from the torrential onslaught from the Penguins in round one and flummoxing the Bruins while also switching back to Semyon Varlamov from Ilya Sorokin. It stands to wonder if head coach Barry “Only My Wife Gets To See My Neck” Trotz might switch back given that Varlamov was the one who lost to the Lightning in six games last season (Thomas Greiss lost one of the four for New York) while Sorokin has yet to even face the Lightning given that it’s his rookie season. When you are seemingly playing with house money, what do you have to lose?
Such as it is, I am conflicted here. I don’t want either team to go any further, because either you have the possibility of the Lightning repeating as Cup champions, verifying the legitimacy of their exploitative tactics while also diminishing the likewise championship accomplishment for Pittsburgh, or the Islanders winning for the first time since the 1980s on the backs of the Penguins for the second time in three years. Part of me also recognizes that this is also the second year in a row that these two are meeting in the Cup Semifinals, and I have a feeling fortune will favor the Islanders. So I’ll say New York in 7, but Tampa and Vegas would make one hell of an interesting Cup Final. More interesting than anything the Islanders would ever be involved in, but if Marc-Andre Fleury can be the one to kill off the Islanders then, god willing, let it be so.